On the Brink

The need for fundamental changes in politics and policy—and fast

We have entered an age of unprecedented insecurity. For the first time since the War of 1812, a foreign enemy has attacked the continental United States. For the first time in economic history, the world is a single market. For the first time in human history, irreversible damage to the biosphere impends.

"Belief in progress," George Santayana observed, constitutes America's "national faith." September 11 shook the foundation of that faith. Already historians are comparing the war on terror to the Cold War—a long twilight struggle that, if prosecuted imprudently, could make the future the focus of fear, not of hope. The maxim guiding the war should be this: Any action that kills civilians abroad also threatens us at home. Say that President George W. Bush attacks Iraq. Saddam has placed weapons near mosques, schools, and hospitals. Say that these buildings are hit, and that the television station al Jazeera broadcasts the destruction throughout the Arab world. Those images could easily create one terrorist for every twenty Iraqi civilians killed—and we would once again reap defeat from victory over Iraq. The first President Bush's decision to station U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia to keep Saddam from the oil fields there—the alternative was to station the forces on carriers in the Mediterranean and the Gulf—furnished Osama bin Laden with the pretext for his "kill the Americans" fatwa. That decision backfired like few others in our history. The British military thinker Sir Michael Howard has said that an attack on Iraq could be as fateful as a nuclear exchange between the superpowers during the Cold War, touching off endless terrorism and endless military response, and eventually igniting the war of civilizations that bin Laden seeks to provoke. A future seeded with that self-inflicted catastrophe is one of fear and not of progress.

Economic insecurity, euphemized as "employee flexibility," is fast settling in as the twenty-first-century condition. Americans who had planned to retire must work until they die. The vaunted "democratization" of the stock market has made millions vulnerable to manipulated euphoria and financial chicanery. In 1975, as Jeff Faux recently pointed out in The American Prospect, 71 percent of employees had "defined benefit" pension plans, which fix the amount an employee receives on retirement. In 1999 only 29 percent had them. Under the 401(k) "defined contribution" accounts that have replaced them, the percentage of retirees unable to maintain 50 percent of their pre-retirement income rose from 30 percent to 43 percent in the booming 1990s. Those with household worth under $1 million saw their retirement wealth fall by 11 percent. Americans are asking, How did this happen? Who benefited from the 401(k) revolution? Twenty years ago employers paid an average of sixty-three cents into employee pensions for each hour worked. In 1996 they paid forty-five cents. Medical benefits have similarly eroded. Why?

Blaming our greedy CEOs satisfyingly personalizes an impersonal phenomenon. But American employees are not the only ones being squeezed. Polish shipyard workers are laid off by the thousands, Chinese factory workers by the millions. On Ecuador's banana plantations laborers must put their children to work or starve. Insecurity for the many pervades a global economy that has everywhere advantaged the few.

The U.S. response to global competition was to let the market rip. Drive down the cost of labor. Throttle unions. Deregulate the economy. The failings of that model now command the headlines. The answer is not to go back—economic security in any one country is no longer possible—but to go forward. To preserve our own standard of living we must raise the global standard. The workers of the world are now united in economic fact but not in consciousness of that fact. Right-wing populism will drive them further apart politically, pitting country against country and trading bloc against trading bloc, as it did throughout much of the world during the past century, in reaction to the social costs of industrial capitalism. Unless ... ? Unless consciousness catches up with fact, politics with economics. To tame globalization's society-devouring drive for efficiency, we need a global New Deal for equity. The machinery is in place: the World Trade Organization can end capital's race to the bottom by raising the bottom. A global minimum wage, a global right to organize unions, and global health and safety regulations in the workplace can make globalization work for all.

Economic globalization has created "one world," to borrow from the title of William Greider's 1997 book. The threat of global warming forces the same trans-national recognition. British government scientists recently estimated that by about 2050 the heating up of the planet, if unchecked, will transform the land biosphere from a weak carbon sink to a strong carbon source that fouls itself forever. That could mark the point of irreversible climate change. We are depositing six gigatons of carbon in nature's sink each year, but the sink can absorb only three million a year. Experts say that our carbon emissions can be halved even with existing technology. If every American who drives to work took public transportation or carpooled or worked from home one day a week, transportation's carbon contrail would be dramatically reduced. Suppose we taxed carbon, not income. People who used less energy would get a tax cut. People who used more would pay its real cost. The market would inspire us to do the right thing.

We are not powerless. Climate change is not our fate but a matter of choice. Bush sees no choice. His policy on global warming is: Live with it. In a report to the United Nations in June, the Environmental Protection Agency conceded that global warming was occurring, even admitting that some alpine meadows and coastal areas may well disappear—but the agency concluded, in so many words, that there is nothing we can do. Since when is surrender the American way?

It will probably take an environmental September 11—good-bye, Cape Cod—to force change. But will the saving dose of disaster come too late? Must we wait for the far edge of remedy? American conservatism taps deep roots in framing collective problems as individual ones. Thus economic insecurity is "employee flexibility." Conservation, the Vice President says, is a matter of "personal virtue." Inevitably the war on terrorism will get the same treatment: expect no help from government; be "personally responsible" for your own safety. Trapped in the historically patterned clichés of individualism, Americans are easily persuaded that the self is the master of its conditions. The age of the unprecedented presents an unprecedented challenge to a political culture that requires emergency to sanction collective national effort.